Writers on the Web: Interview with Brian Beacock, Creator of Web Series “Acting Dead”

Acting Dead Advert 5x8smallerfileActor, writer, producer, and musician Brian Beacock exemplifies the can-do, go-getting, nothing’s-gonna-stand-in-my-way attitude that I love about web series creators.

Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Beacock moved to Los Angeles after completing the the National Tour of Les Miserables, and has since created a diverse career in voiceover (over 30 cartoons and video games), in television (including CSI and Kath and Kim) and in film (including Mullholland Drive and Buying the Cow.)

As a writer/producer he and writing partner John Yelvington are behind the much lauded and hugely successful web series McCracken Live! which won at LAWEBFEST and was one of only twenty two shows in the world chosen to be in Europe’s first web series festival in Marseille, France. The show is currently being shopped to television networks.

His new series is Acting Dead, a deathly funny dark comedy about the world of Hollywood zombies who are literally dying for a part.

Rebecca: What was the inspiration behind the story for Acting Dead?

Brian: Honestly it came out of frustration and boredom of being stuck in traffic on the 405 one day.  Looking at all the people next to me sitting in their cars, like zombies.  I thought, wouldn’t it be funny if they were zombies, but of course it’s LA, so they’d have to be actors right?  And probably on their way to an audition of course.  And I thought what it they were going to audition to play a zombie, and didn’t get the part.  They weren’t dead enough, ugly enough, scary enough, etc.  Kind of a play on why we actors sometimes don’t get cast, not pretty enough, tall enough, etc.

Acting Dead ended up being about Tate Blodgett, my character, who is so desperate to get a job (can’t even get cast as an extra in zombie movies) that he goes to a company called Flatline Inc, where they kill actors by making them watch hours of bad 80’s and 90’s television which turns them into real, authentic, “cast-able” zombies. He finds out that even being dead, life is hard in LA.   I loved creating this bizarre Hollywood where zombie movie and TV shows were taking over (not far from the truth) and people were willing to do anything to get a job.

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Rebecca: What inspires you to work in the web space? Why should writers consider writing a web series when trying to get their work seen?

Brian: Motivation can come from convenience as well as inspiration and I think that’s very true when it comes to web content.  You’re inspired to work in the web space because the web space allow your work to be seen, to be created.  It’s a great new world we’re in where actors, writers, producers, etc can see a project through from beginning to end.  Before you’d have to work in film, and once it was finished, send it off into the festival circuit to get it seen, or rent a theater for screenings, etc.  The web, although thankfully there are so many web festivals popping up now, I think we need them, is a great way to get your content seen, because it’s so accessible to people.  All the time.  Forever.  Now, driving traffic and eyeballs to your content, that’s a whole different “business” ball of wax.

But as far as writers are concerned it’s an amazing space to continually create content.  That said, it’s not just a writer that gets a show online, or on the air, etc, you need a great team to make sure your script gets shot, edited, and completed.  So writers, make friends with smart producers and post teams that are just as interested in you to not only start a project, but to finish them.

Rebecca: You previously had success with your web series McCracken Live! How was the production process for Acting Dead compared to McCracken? Did you encounter any different or unique challenges?

Brian: For McCracken Live!, my writing partner John Yelvington and I shot an 8 minute pilot presentation for the purpose of using it as a pitching tool for networks, etc.  People saw it and thought it would made a good web series, which come to find out, would also help us extremely during the pitching process.  We have a strong audience base, lots of awards, good web presence, etc.  But we didn’t really plan it as a web series so it was kind of a mish-mosh of planning, shooting, etc.  We continued to create episodes even several years after the original pitch pilot.

With Acting Dead, my producing partners Susan Bernhardt and Paul Nygro and I knew what we wanted it to be, and started down that road from the beginning.  An eight-episode TV series, with a narrative throughline.  We had to block shoot, meaning all the scenes in the diner, had to be shot one day in the diner, etc.  So everything out of sequence like a film.  More cost effective.  I also wrote the show kind of in the style of Arrested Development, Parks and Rec, 30 Rock, so there’s lots of flashbacks, cutaways, etc for the comedy.  This meant an enormous amount of scenes and set ups.  So, multiple locations and huge cast and crew.  About 92 people total.  We shot over the course of three weeks, but only ten days within that period, taking days off after really hard days to plan for the next couple really hard days!  We had a one ton grip truck, 2 cameras running, several makeup and costume people, PA’s, script sup, AD, etc, the works.  It was huge.

Acting Dead cast members at Acting Dead premiere party

Acting Dead cast at Acting Dead premiere party

We also used lots of name actors.  Jillian Clare, Debbie Gibson the singer/songwriter, Cocoa Brown, Carolyn Hennesy, Chris Galya, Patrika Darbo, Sean Kanan, John J York, Lori Alan, Eric Martsolf.  So the scheduling was absolutely insane.  You have to book your talent, but you also have to book your location, and make sure your crew is available that day.  But then the shooting schedule changes at say General Hospital so you lose an actor that day, etc.  When you’re dealing with indie series funds, you don’t have the luxury of “locking in” anything, cast or locations, or crew.  It’s all a balancing act that you pray will stay steady until the last shot on the last day.  I think we did a good job of it.  I’m proud of it, and everyone involved.  They worked their butts off, everyone.

Rebecca: Where did you shoot, and how did you go about securing your locations? Did you find that locations were expensive, and also required insurance and/or site reps? Or were you able to find less expensive alternatives?

Brian: We shot all over Los Angeles, and were lucky to get a couple locations for free or low cost.  But as I said, we had so many locations in the series that we ended up having to shoot at a few studio lots just to get a large variety of locations without doing a company move, which you know takes up time out of your already precious shooting days.  Finding locations was another whole business of pre production that I didn’t enjoy, Susan Bernhardt, my producer, and I driving around in my car (without air conditioning) during the hot LA days, looking at tons of places that just wouldn’t work, weren’t available on the days we needed them, or were frankly just out of reach budget-wise.  It was insane.

And poor Susan, the Excel spreadsheet she had to create to keep track of things would make Escher himself confused. The locations we were able to secure, were pretty expensive.  Again, based on an indie budget.  Most had a site rep that came with the location, built into the cost of course.  And I would say the half of the places required insurance and the other half had it built into the contract.  We only had a few locations that were free, but they’re integral to the story and look great so nothing looks like we “settled” thank goodness.

Rebecca: Did you experience any last minute fires prior to shooting that you had to put out? Any locations or actors pull out at the last minute, that sort of thing? If so, how did you handle it?

1391983_10151723934159702_594854499_nBrian: Boy did we.  After our first day of shooting I get a call from a BIG guest star we had booked for day two.  And he was way sick.  Like deathbed sick.  Of course me as an executive producer was like “…..So….think you can be there by 8am?” Haha!  I mean, what was I gonna do.  But there was no way, he was OUT.  So in having to create this patchwork quilt of actors and schedules in the months prior, I had another actor in mind already who was going to be a different role but I needed him immediately.  Called him up that night, he got the script and shot the next morning.  Practically the whole episode is his, it’s a huge role.  And he nailed it.  Happy accidents.

We also had trouble finding the kind of camera we needed.  These days everyone’s shooting on the DSLR’s and I wanted to look that Parks and Rec has where they quick zoom the camera, etc.  Funny reaction shots. Well that’s hard to do on a DSLR, you have to “pull focus”, etc.  So we got these Panasonic somethingorothers and boy, hard to find, and NOT cheap.

During the shoot there was always the issue of time.  Time is your enemy.  In life, and in production.  So some of our days were long! And you have to keep everyone happy.  Especially the crew.  I mean, you lose a cameraman or your sound guy and you’re out for the day.  And it’s the only day you’re in that location.  So I was happy to have Susan Bernhardt and Paul Nygro at the helm “running the show” in that respect.

Rebecca: Do you have any recommendations for our readers on how to keep things sane in pre-production, especially as deadlines and pressures mount?

Brian: Sane.  Hmmmm.  Haha.  I mean, I’ve been in pre-production, production, and post-production, going on almost a year now and I haven’t had a great night’s sleep.  So “sane” might be a stretch.  But the biggest thing I’d suggest is plan, plan, plan.  And delegate to the smartest most type A people you can trust.  I couldn’t have done any of it without Susan the producer.  Keep your emails organized, paperwork on everything, notate phone calls points.  Keep a binder!  Photos of cast ideas.  Break down your binder into shooting days, cross referenced to locations, crew, cast, props, costumes, etc.  I mean, I had everything in that binder as the executive producer and writer.

But, on the other side of the coin, don’t trust that things will always be taken care of, because things get missed.  So be involved, ask questions, confirm.  And then, I suppose the new lesson I learned is, after that, let it go.  If you have carefully planned, your money is in place, your cast and crew will be showing up, someone is there to unlock the doors and people know their lines….it’s gonna get done.  That’s when you have to let all the “business” go and start the creative process.  Things will NOT always be exactly the way you planned, but hopefully if something happens, and things go “pear shaped”, you’ll end up with something even better, different, and something you would’ve never thought of.  That’s the trust issue in myself I’m still learning and will probably continue to struggle with for a while.

Rebecca: If you could do it all over again, would you do anything differently in your pre-production? What advice would you give new web series creators just starting out, to make sure that production goes smoothly?

Brian: If you don’t have to shoot working towards a difficult deadline, don’t.  Have your money in place!!!! We had our “production” budget before we started but I was working during production, and during a short break before Post to make the post production budget.  And it’s always more than you think it is.  Plus with web series, you’ve got festivals, merchandising, travel, marketing, etc.  Lots of stuff you don’t think about.

Also, know who your Post Prod people are.  Don’t search after you’ve shot.  That’s what we had to do and while we ended up with a hot shot team, it’s stressful.  Besides, it would be great to have your editor on set, your FX person (if you have them) on set to help set up shots, sound mixer, etc.  I did know I would be working with composer Jamie Forsyth, we’ve worked together on McCracken Live! and a few other projects.  He’s the composer for Bones and has done tons of other TV.  Let me tell you, the score is ridiculously good and I’m more than grateful every day that he came on board.

Know how many episodes you want, how long, (basic stuff of course), but if you can and style of show and locations allow, build in some time for playing and experimenting on set.  Give yourself time to “shoot another just for fun.”  Don’t bog yourself down with 10 pages a day or multiple company moves, it’s ridiculous.

And my last word to the readers are, think big.  Be smart but think big.  This is your time to do what’s in your mind.  Don’t let anyone tell you no.

Watch Acting Dead at JTS.tv!
Check out the Acting Dead website!

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